Saturday, December 27, 2008

142. Madam Solfeggia

Contest winner: TWZRD
Concept contributed by: greyniffler

The Snookerfield Quartet were in the full fury of a Beethoven fugue when the knock came. At first, nobody heard it. When it was repeated, rather louder, the quartet played on without missing a beat; but the lady of the house noticed. "Fifi," she shouted over the music. "Fifi, there! Yoo-hoo!"

Fifi had her ear-plugs in, so she heard none of this. She only noticed that her mistress wanted her attention when a stream of sparks arced over her shoulder, spouting from the lady's wand and very nearly igniting the feather duster Fifi was running over the piano. She turned, pulled out one wax ball, and screeched: "Your pardon, ma'am?"

Ma'am waved both hands toward the front hall, where the knocking had been replaced by a magically magnified voice booming, "Queen's business! Is anyone at home?" while the quartet sawed away, oblivious. "The door, girl!" the lady yelled. "Answer the door!"

A moment later Fifi returned to the parlor door and shrieked: "Agent Dalrymple and Agent Spankison of the R.M.B., if you please!"

Two wizards strode in with their pointy hats in their hands. One was tall, thin, and dangerous-looking. The other, stout and puffy under the eyes, had a harrassed look, and he flinched slightly when he saw that all the noise came from a live string quartet. The players glanced suspiciously at the two agents, whenever they had a chance to look up from their scores.

"You couldn't turn it down at all?" bellowed Dalrymple, the shorter wizard.

The lady snapped her fingers twice. The players looked up at her, though the music continued. "Roger, Tim, Barry, run along to the kitchen and tell Cook you're to have tea until I send for you. Herbert will stay and improvise quietly. Chop, chop!"

Three of the players broke off and hurried out of the room, leaving their instruments behind. Only the viola player remained; with hardly a pause, he launched into a set of variations on a tooth powder advertising jingle. "I could have guessed Herbert would be the viola player," Dalrymple sniffed inwardly.

Meanwhile, Spanky made the introductions. "Madam Solfeggia, I presume?"

The lady nodded.

"I'm Spankison, and my colleague here is Dalrymple."

"How pleased I am to meet you," she replied, with apparent sincerity. "I have read so many of your exploits in the Daily Prophet. To what do I owe this honor?"

She was a small, delicately-shaped woman with a deathly pale complexion, like one wasted away by illness; yet her cheeks had a flush of vitality, and her hands had a strong, sinewy look. She closed the book in which she had been writing and set it aside, smoothing the lap of her snug, floor-length black skirt. Over this she wore a cream-colored blouse with loose sleeves down to her wrists and a floral-printed scarf knotted firmly around her neck. She did not rise as the vistors entered, but Dalrymple spotted an ivory walking-stick leaning against the wall within reach of her chair. Perhaps she needed its support to stand up, he thought while Spanky answered her question.

"We're investigating the murder of a Himalayan ruminant, and a certain piece of evidence has led us to you. Do you have time to answer a few questions?"

"By all means, gentlemen. Have a seat. Be careful of the instruments. I'm afraid I can't be very helpful. I don't know any Tibetan monks."

"I was referring to a yak, actually."

"Well, that's another matter. We have a yak around here somewhere."

"Have, or had?" asked Dalrymple.

"Have, I think. But I couldn't say for certain. I never see it."

"Why do you have it, then?"

"Oh, dear!" Madam Solfeggia laughed musically. "You won't believe this. It was sent by mistake when I ordered a nightingale."

Dalrymple licked the tip of a quill and scribbled a note on a scrap of parchment. "Do you collect exotic pets, then?"

"Not really," said the lady. "I was trying something new. I have two string quartets and a wind quintet serving me, turn and turn about, twenty-four hours a day. Except on weekends and holidays, when I use two pianists and a ballad-singer. I thought perhaps a little nature music would make a nice change, give the lads a breather now and then. I can't bear to be without music, even for a moment. So when I saw a nightingale advertised in an owl-order catalog, I sent for it.

"Imagine my surprise when I saw the crate it came in, flying over the treetops under probably every third owl in Britain. They literally darkened the sky. At first I thought: How silly of me not to realize a nightingale would be so big! Then my staff opened the crate, and there it was. I've written to the dealer to ask if I can return the yak for a refund, but they haven't responded."

"Do you recall the address of this yak dealer?" asked Spanky.

"No. You'll have to ask Roger. He's my secretary, when he isn't playing in the quartet. He handles all of that. Everyone on my staff wears two hats. Fifi, the girl who let you in, is one of the pianists who serenades me on weekends. Herbert here keeps my accounts."

"I thought he would," Dalrymple muttered to himself.

"You'll find Roger in the kitchen," said Madam Solfeggia. "Will that be all, then?"

"Beg pardon," said Spanky, "but no. It actually wasn't the yak that led us here. Though we would like to see your yak, er..."

"To eliminate it as a suspect?" The lady appeared to be stifling a laugh.

"To eliminate it as a victim," Dalrymple corrected her.

"Who is in charge of keeping the beast?" asked Spanky. "Is it Tim or Barry, perhaps?"

"No, it's a member of the other quartet, Sam Hill by name. He is not in at the moment. It's his morning off, and his next shift doesn't start till three o'clock."

The agents' eyes touched in a significant look.

"Perhaps we can come back then," Dalrymple suggested, speaking slowly, "and Mr. Hill can show us your yak."

Madam Solfeggia smiled. "As you wish. Once you see it, I am sure you will find that any connection between this house and your crime is but a red herring. Or yak, rather."

"That leaves only one other matter," said Spanky. "Do you own a knife like this?" He pulled out his Zichri Goode ounce-of-prevention and showed it to her, blade sideways.

The lady's reaction was the last thing the two agents expected. Simultaneously, she drew a sharp, hissing breath; pushed herself to her feet so that her chair tipped over behind her; and drew her wand. Since Spanky was holding his knife between both hands, he could not quickly reach either of his wands to defend himself. Dalrymple had scarcely reached for his wand when the lady muttered her first charm.

Fortunately, it was only a shield charm. Unfortunately, Madam Solfeggia miscalculated in her haste and panic, putting too much power into the spell. The invisible shield blew outward, swatting the knife out of Spanky's hand and sending it flying toward Herbert's viola. The musician flinched, risking his flesh to protect the instrument, and suffered a deep slash across his left arm. The viola dropped out of his nerveless hands as Herbert screamed in pain.

"No!" Madam Solfeggia screamed, covering her ears and staggering backwards. "Help! Somebody must sing at once!"

Herbert was too busy howling and wrapping a handkerchief around his bleeding arm. Spanky was occupied with leaping to retrieve his silver-bladed knife. Dalrymple faced Madam Solfeggia with his wand fully extended, unable to hear her cries over his own voice shouting, "Drop the wand!"

The lady fell backwards over her fallen chair. Suddenly everything went quiet, except for the sound of footsteps running away and a door slamming at the back of the house.

Then, from the corner behind the overturned chair, the three wizards heard a deep, hideous growl.

"Save us," Herbert whimpered. "You must play music for her. Or sing something. Otherwise she'll kill us all."

"I doubt that," said Spanky, brandishing a wand in one hand and his knife in the other.

"You don't understand," groaned the viola player. Then he began to sing - badly - making up the notes and the words to go with them: "She hasn't transformed for over sixteen years. The music holds it at bay. But the change can't be skipped, only delayed. All the hunger and fury of a hundred full moons, coming at you at once..." Herbert shuddered, nodding toward the knife. "You may kill her with that thing, but like as not she'll kill one or two of us first."

The musician subsided into panting. He was losing too much blood to keep singing. It might have been a relief to hear the end of his dreary tune, but as soon as it stopped, the growling began again.

Dalrymple whistled a couple bars of "The Girl from Ipanema." The growling stopped.

"Huh," he said. "What do you know?" The growling started again.

"Keep whistling," said Spanky.

"I don't know any songs," said Dalrymple.

"Then play Chopsticks on the piano," said Spanky.

"I can do that," said Dalrymple, and he did.

A strong, pale hand reached out from behind the toppled chair and grasped the ivory cane by the window. While Spanky kept his weapons trained in her direction, and while Dalrymple kept playing chopsticks over and over, Madam Solfeggia slowly dragged herself to her feet. She looked exhausted, ill, frightened, and savagely angry; her clothes hung on her awkwardly, as if she had taken them off and put them back on while lurking out of sight.

"So it's true, what they say about music and the savage beast." Spanky looked awkward but wary as he made the quip.

"It's breast, not beast," the lady snarled. "I will not have that thing pointed at me in my own house. And for pity's sake, go out and find somebody who can play better than this rubbish." She pointed her cane toward Dalrymple, but then lost her balance and only kept herself from falling again by catching hold of the windowsill and leaning on it. "I can heal Herbert. As long as I can hear something approximating music, no one will be in danger."

Herbert gave Spanky a look that said, "Please, don't leave me with her," but Spanky left anyway.

He came back surprisingly quickly, having found Fifi barricaded in the pantry. She slid onto the piano bench next to Dalrymple and began playing a Chopin Polonaise. Dalrymple smiled gratefully and wiped the sweat off his face, but he wasn't the only one grateful for the change.

Herbert's sleeve had been torn off. Except for a pink line across his arm and the bloodstains on his robe, there was no other sign he had been wounded at all. He was now looking over his viola, checking it for damage. Madam Solfeggia, meanwhile, was back in her chair, still shaken. She closed her eyes with relief as Fifi began playing.

"I am sorry to have caused so much trouble," she said, with a tone of humility that bordered on self-loathing. "As you can see, I am doing all that anybody can do to prevent my condition from..." She hesitated to choose her next word.

"Spreading?" Dalrymple prompted

"Causing harm?" Spanky suggested.

"Manifesting," she said. "I would a thousand times rather have been a vampire," she added. "It would be horrible, evil, and wrong, but at least it wouldn't be as..." Once again she seemed to be at a loss for words.

Dalrymple and Spanky looked at each other, but neither of them chose to help the lady this time.

"...sordid," she finally decided. "Wild, stinking, animal - I hate it. I have always hated it. I doubt that any curse could make me as miserable as this does. And now because of it I get accused of yak-slaughter and have my life threatened in my own parlor. I can't imagine falling lower than this."

Spanky hung his head. "It is I who should apologize," he said.

Dalrymple stared at him, amazed.

"How is that?" the lady asked warily.

"I did not expect my knife to have that kind of effect on you. I assumed the one we found stuck in the yak had your name on it because it belonged to you."

Madam Solfeggia's eyes snapped open. "It had what?"

"Your name," Spanky repeated slowly. He held up a photograph of a knife, nearly identical to his own, but with the words Solfeggia d'Arezzo engraved on the blade in an elaborate, curly script.

"I've never seen that," she said, gazing at the picture in something between shock and horror. "But why? How?"

"You know as much as we do," said Dalrymple. "The knife is what led us to you."

"Several years ago we found another body with a similar knife in it," said Spanky. "Neither the owner of the knife, nor the victim, was ever identified."

"Victim?" Madam Solfeggia murmured, clutching at the scarf around her neck. "Not a yak, I take it?"

"This man," said Dalrymple, and he produced a photo from one of his pockets. A photo whose subject did not move, unlike the subjects of most wizard photographs. He didn't move because he was dead.

"Mother of Gounod," the lady whispered, her hand now moving up to hover in front of her mouth. "That's him."

"You know him?" Dalrymple asked, his face turning as pale as hers.

"That's - that's the boy," she faltered. A puzzling series of emotions flowed across her face - perhaps rage; perhaps fear; perhaps even tenderness.

"Which boy?" Dalrymple demanded

"That's the young man who..." Again her voice gave out.

Dalrymple was at the end of his patience. He threw the photograph at her. It hit her chest edge-on as the agent shouted, "The man who what?"

As the photograph dropped into Madam Solfeggia's lap, it turned face-downward. Somehow this seemed to break the spell that held her. She looked up at Dalrymple and shouted back: "Who made me like this!" And then she covered her eyes with both hands and burst into tears.


You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! First, go to the forums, or send Robbie feedback. Then, in 250 words or less, answer the following Survey and Contest. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest answer that Robbie likes best, will turn up in the chapter after next. [EDIT: This discussion is now closed.]

SURVEY: The yak found under Penelope Spankison's bed was: (A) Madam Solfeggia's pet yak, of course! (B) A similar yak supplied by the same mysterious dealer. (C) A Tibetan animagus whose similarity to Madam Solfeggia's yak was a coincidence. (D) A random victim pulled out of some kind of magical wormhole for no other purpose than to leave a grisly message under Spanky's nose. (E) A runaway zoo animal that followed Penelope home and gave its life to protect her from a knife-wielding assassin.

CONTEST: Describe a magical procedure, creature, or object from a book outside the Harry Potter series, something that might make a nice addition to the HP magical world. You may choose any book that Robbie has already reviewed on The Book Trolley. (This will save the time it takes him to read it.)

[Originally posted 9/14/08]

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